THE GRAND ‘MOM’ ; Dr Santhamma Mathew
As one of the leading and acclaimed infertility specialists of Kerala, Dr Santhamma Mathew has touched the lives of tens of thousands of women in ways beyond imagination.
Long before infertility treatment options became available in Kerala, an 18-year-old Muslim girl, who had tumours in her ovaries, came to meet the renowned obstetrician-gynaecologist, Dr Santhamma Mathew. Removal of the ovaries was the seemingly easier option, but it would have affected the fertility of the young girl. However, though it made the surgery more difficult and tedious, Dr Santhamma took care to leave behind some of the healthy ovarian tissue from both ovaries during the surgery. She then prescribed her contraceptive pills until her marriage, to prevent exhaustion of production of her eggs. Two years later, a teary-eyed girl, then already married, came to see Dr Santhamma Mathew , to share with her the joyous news of her pregnancy. This is merely one of the several gratifying experiences Dr Santhamma has to share in her journey as a doctor.
Dr. Santhamma Mathew’s life-story and trail-blazing career as the pioneering specialist is not just one of determination and grit alone, but also one of empathy and devotion and is inspirational.
In the context of the International Mothers’ Day, which falls on May 9th, Dr Santhamma Mathew spoke to Unique Times about her 52-year-long and continuing career at Sree Avittam Thirunal (SAT) Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram, and subsequently as managing director and chief consultant of Credence Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram, during which she had personally performed several tens of thousands of deliveries, gynaecological surgeries and treated hundreds of thousands of patients in her out-patient department, a rare and unique feat for a woman who handled her role as a mother and grandmother with the same élan.
Bringing a touch of humaneness into her profession comes naturally for Dr Santhamma Mathew . When quizzed about the reason for her success and why she was loved by multitudes of her patients, she had this to say: “I see only my mother or my sisters in my patients, probably the reason why they trusted me and why many still continue to seek my second opinion and care, when they are recommended surgeries.”
By the time she retired from the Medical College Hospital in 1999, Dr Santhamma Mathew had earned a reputation as one of the fastest and most perfect surgeons in her profession. Defying her age, this doctor still carries the same enthusiasm she had when she performed the first surgery under the guidance of the then SAT hospital superintendent, Dr Susan George. Dr Santhamma Mathew had made a striking impression right from her very first closure of a surgical wound, a skill which soon earned her wide praise and acclaim in her career. “I would check whether my students and junior doctors had done the suturing of the surgical incisions well. I was never satisfied until they had done it perfectly. Most of them became experts too,” said Dr Santhamma Mathew with a smile.
Dr Santhamma Mathew believes in giving the best in everything she does. This is evident from her much popular, simple but elegant and impeccable style of dressing to the way she shaped her career. She began her career as a tutor at Government Medical College Thiruvananthapuram in 1970 and retired in 1999 as a professor with 30 years of service. However, in contrast to convention, retirement from government services for Dr Santhamma Mathew, was only the beginning of yet another unique and fruitful journey. It was her husband Mr K. J. John’s brainwave to start the Centre for Reproductive Medicine in 2001 which was subsequently upgraded to a superspeciality Women’s Health Institute and Research Centre in 2006. Both were named ‘Credence’ by Mr John, as the couple believed that ‘trust’ was of paramount importance in health-care services. A former engineer of ISRO, Mr John’s vision, and managerial acumen helped in effectively shaping Credence Hospital as a trustworthy and acclaimed hospital in Kerala, which drew patients from across the state and abroad. In fact, Dr Santhamma Mathew readily shares the credit of her success with her husband, who, according to her, has always adjusted to her odd work schedules. Though Mr John wanted Dr Santhamma Mathew to pursue her higher studies in England, she preferred to stay with her family. “Besides, the immense experience I gained from Medical College Hospital was on par with any foreign education,” she said. Dr Santhamma Mathew did her specialty courses in laparoscopy (key-hole surgery) and In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF), long before they became popular in Kerala.
Trained in IVF as early as 1991, from Singapore, Dr Santhamma Mathew was initially a bit sceptical to start an IVF centre due to the huge cost involved in setting up a state-of-the-art IVF lab. It was then that Dr Santhamma happened to re-visit the lines of the poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
Inspired by these words she decided to take the ‘unbeaten’ path which eventually paved way for her to be the reason for bringing happiness in the lives of tens of thousands of erstwhile childless couples. Though the launch of Credence IVF in August 2001, which now celebrates its 20th anniversary, was a low-key event, it gained instant popularity as a landmark centre of excellence, by word of mouth. A 42-year-old lady was the first to be blessed at Credence, to realise her long-pending desire to be a mother, and made instant news. Dr Santhamma Mathew is credited for successfully using testicular sperm aspiration and intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection techniques for the first time in South Kerala. The first baby born using frozen embryo technology in South Kerala too is a testimonial to her unique initiatives and achievements.
In the subsequent years, Dr Santhamma Mathew treated ten thousands of childless couples and thousands of them were blessed with babies conceived through infertility treatment performed under her expertise. Dr Santhamma said that IVF was, however, only the last resort in the management of infertility patients and not all patients actually required it. “We would evaluate both the husband and wife for causes for the lack of conception, based on which a decision on the method of treatment would be made. Many of them conceived with proper counselling, while some conceived with medications or laparoscopic surgery and some found success with intrauterine insemination (IUI) or other methods and only the remaining actually needed IVF treatment,” she opined.
Long before spending ‘quality time with children’ became a fad, Dr Santhamma Mathew used to advocate the same. To effectively spend time with her two children, she would categorise the responsibilities into two: those that a mother alone could perform and those that another person could be delegated to take care of and she ensured that she never neglected the former. She also encouraged her children to read books and would carefully select good books for them. She also took care to be part of their laughter as well as their concerns and always encouraged them to explore their creative side. Making Mr John and Dr Santhamma Mathew proud, their two children are now eminent doctors with the elder son, Dr Binoy John practising as an interventional cardiologist in Chennai, and the younger son Dr Bimal John being the chief laparoscopic surgeon and IVF specialist at Credence Hospital.
Educator, Managing Director, Champion of Women Empowerment and Philanthropist
As a hardworking and dedicated doctor, Dr Santhamma Mathew’s popularity surged during her career at the Medical College Hospital. Dr Santhamma Mathew was a popular speaker and educator on ‘Akashavani’ (All India Radio, Thiruvanathapuram) in the times when the radio was the main-stream medium and also on ‘Doordarshan’ in the early 1980s when TV channels came into vogue and subsequently on a host of private television channels. However, instead of using the media for her own career advancement, Dr Santhamma voiced her opinions unflinchingly on social issues and helped shatter deep-rooted prejudices against women. She spoke on a variety of issues including how the gender of a child was unrelated to the mother and how it was the male or father’s chromosome that contributed to gender determination of the child, as also abortion, virginity and a host of other topics which many shied away from speaking about in those times. She was also a sought out speaker in colleges, enlightening young women on topics such as menstrual issues, pregnancy and childbirth and infertility.
On the topic of women’s health, Dr Santhamma Mathew was a regular author for various magazines and newspapers. Amidst her tight work schedule, she also found time to author educational books for women. ‘Vandhyathayude Vazhiyile Kaivilakkukal’ (Leading lights in the path of infertility), ‘Garbhadharanam Muthal Prasavam Vare’ (From conception to delivery), and ‘Sthree Rogangal’ (Diseases in women) were popular books amongst women readers. Through her widely acclaimed autobiography ‘Nakshatrangal Akaleyalla’ (The stars are not afar), Dr Santhamma laid bare her childhood, career, and her personality, shaped by a deep-rooted devotion to the creator, humility and self-respect. The renowned poet Padmavibhushan Shri O.N.V. Kurup wrote the foreword for the autobiography, which was released jointly by the then Union Minister Shri Dr Shashi Tharoor and Chief Minister of Kerala Shri Oommen Chandy in 2013.
Post-retirement, when she donned the mantle of the managing director of Credence Hospital, she found happiness in that she could facilitate the employment of 250-odd staff in her institution and thus give something back to Thiruvananthapuram, the city that nurtured her success. She also expressed joy that in this role she was able to extend her services in helping the less privileged by being able to give concessions and waive off expensive treatment costs, at her discretion.
Dr Santhamma Mathew never complained about a lack of time, even while maintaining the busiest of schedules. She always found time for family, educational activities, and for pursuing her passions. She had the practice of waking up as early as 4 am so that she could read without disturbing her husband and children. “If I had something important to do, I would plan ahead, wake up early and do the work on time,” she said.
“The lines from the poem of the 15th-century poet Kabir Das, ‘Kal Kare So Aaj Kar, Aaj Kare So Ab’ (Do today what needs to be completed tomorrow; Do now what needs to be done today) are my inspiration.” she added.
Though she couldn’t devote more time for her family, Dr Santhamma Mathew says that the sacrifice of her family time for her patients would have earned her and her family an abundance of blessings by finding a place in the love and prayers of the many thousands of families she served.
Dr Santhamma Mathew always had a pleasant and friendly demeanor and never the hurried face of an otherwise busy doctor. Amid her hectic schedule, she never shied away from having warm conversations with her patients and colleagues. Being a quick decision-maker, Dr Santhamma Mathew would ensure that she completed all her work on time.
Even now, as the pandemic rages, Dr Santhamma Mathew has adopted the telemedicine system and continues to conduct her out-patient consultation at Credence from morning to late afternoon, along with an experienced team and her son managing daily patient care.
A typical day for Dr Santhamma Mathew begins with her prayers followed by yoga and other exercises. She has always followed a healthy lifestyle with a focus on a healthy diet and regular workouts.
Born into the ancient Anjilumoottil family in Haripad, Dr Santhamma was the youngest of four girls of T.M. Mathew and Deenamma Mathew. Dr Santhamma had imbibed all the qualities of the pious family, which groomed the four girls as hardworking individuals. “My parents never discriminated against us based on our gender but raised us as confident individuals. They insisted that we remained neat and well dressed and nurtured a noble character, which I continue to follow. They taught us to work for the happiness of others besides our own satisfaction and told us money and fame should not be our priority but those would always follow hard work and a helpful nature, which was true,” said Dr Santhamma.
“We see God in you.” Dr Santhamma has heard these words from innumerable patients and their families. Then, she would intervene gently to give all credit to the divine power which guides her. She would cite both The Bible and The Bhagawat Gita to illustrate the importance of God in our lives. Dr Santhamma Mathew is a firm believer in God’s power and explains how it was God who helped the young David to bring down the giant and powerful Goliath with the precision of his sling in single combat and free the people of Israel and she quotes Romans 8.31: “If God is with us, who can be against us?” She then refers to The Bhagawat Gita on how when the Pandavas and Kauravas were given the choice between Lord Krishna’s powerful army and himself, that it was the Pandavas’ choice and faith in Lord Krishna that paved the way for their ultimate victory.
Thus a run through Dr Santhamma Mathew’s illustrious career, life and journey on the ‘unbeaten’ path makes it evident how it is her sheer dedication and commitment to hard work, humane nature, a core value to do good for others, and above all her faith in God, that has made her an exemplary doctor and a Grand ‘Mom’ to innumerable people. While celebrating International Mother’s day, Unique Times is certain that Dr Santhamma Mathew’s life and lessons will be a leading light and inspiration for the younger generations to learn from, adopt and emulate. Unique Times also wishes Dr Santhamma Mathew good health in her continued service to humanity.